Is it bordering on heresy to say that this Munster squad is as deep as it’s been since 2008? Maybe heresy isn’t the right word – pressurising, perhaps, would be more suitable.
After all, if we’re to compare this squad, quality wise, with the Heineken Cup-winning squad of 2005-2008 we have to also look at what that squad achieved from a silverware perspective.
When we do that, we can see the expectation that comes with Munster Rugby this season but that expectation is a good thing. Ultimately, there’s no real comparison to make between the two squads other than they both have a collection of quality individuals.
But what is it about the depth Munster have in 2018 that makes it in any way different from last year or the year before? This is what I’ll call Talent Accumulation and Development but to get into that, we’ll have to go back to 2016/2017.
When Rassie Erasmus took over as Munster’s Director of Rugby in the aftermath of the worst season, performance wise, in Munster’s recent history, it was obvious that changes would have to be made to the playing squad.
Guys like Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls were proven quality but everyone else? There were questions marks. Some guys had potential but hadn’t shown it. Others had what it took but couldn’t stay fit. Others were good players but not what Munster needed at that point to push them on and would have to head off at the end of their deal.
That last part – releasing guys – is the hardest part of any professional sport but it’s vital to keep the quality of a team with the expectations of Munster Rugby ticking over. With that in mind, Munster brought in a group of players in one go – Jean Kleyn, Rhys Marshall, Jaco Taute, Darren O’Shea and Sam Arnold.
The second row was a position of concern for Munster around that time. At that point, Munster were beginning to feel the after-effects of having O’Connell and O’Callaghan in place for the bones of ten years with little movement up the depth chart behind them. Throw in a few unfortunate injuries to Donnacha Ryan, Dave Foley and others, and you’ve got a position that was looking stagnant across the tighthead and loosehead lock positions.
The signing of Kleyn – 6’8”, 125kg – to a three-year deal immediately reset the pecking order in the second row and spelled trouble for Dave Foley, Mark Chisholm, John Madigan in particular. In one way, it’s a perfect example of the kind of depth chart building that all sides are trying to do in every position. All of Foley, Madigan and Chisholm were injured, in the last year of their deal and under pressure for form. All three would leave at the end of that season for pastures new.
Munster also lost Donnacha Ryan at the end of that season for reasons outside of their direct control – improved competition at international level meant that a central contract wasn’t on offer even though Munster were offering a deal of their own on similar terms – so that meant Munster had to act quickly.
At that point, a contract between Beirne – after a breakout season at the Scarlets that put him firmly on the IRFU’s radar – and Munster was close to being formalised but his deal was a year away from expiring so that lead to the year-long signing of Grobler.
Now, Munster have Kleyn, Holland, Beirne, O’Shea and Wycherley as specialist second rows with Ahern and O’Connor in the academy for this season. Kleyn is off contract at the end of the season and, if we assume he’ll re-sign (and I hope he will), that will be the perfect layout for the second row in a squad. That kind of depth chart sorting happens in every position.
Why else do you think Munster have five flyhalves this season with three out of contract at the end of the year? If Carbery is the #1 guy, and Johnston is the up and coming young talent, that leaves Bleyendaal, Keatley and Hanrahan fighting for position as second in the depth chart. It’s all part of the game in 2018.